A rare look inside Karakalpakstan

A museum with the second­-largest collection of Russian avant­-garde paintings, ancient settlements from the Zoroastrian era and a port on the dried-­up Aral Sea. What does this collection of oddities have in common? They are all found in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. From its stony plateaus in the west to its salt flats in the north, Karakalpakstan rises out of the desert like a colorful, multicultural gem, as mysterious as it is desolate.

 

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Karakalpakstan hosted the Asrlar Sadosi Festival in 2012. 50,000 visitors descended upon its deserts for the celebration of traditional art, music, crafts and culture.

 

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To put this influx of visitors into perspective, the aforementioned Igor Savitsky Museum of Art sees just 1,000 tourists a year. The museum sits in the capital city of Nukus, once the sight of top­-secret Cold War research facilities, and now the cultural hub of the Karakalpaks.

 

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The Karakalpaks are a Turkic ethnic group, who once existed as nomadic fishers, cattle­breeders and farmers. Karakalpak roughly translates to “Black Hat”, but the significance of the moniker has been lost, along with much of Karakalpak cultural heritage.

 

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The Republic of Karakalpakstan arose in 1925, when the Soviet Union divided its land along ethnic lines. Nonetheless, Karakalpak ethnic autonomy is mostly a facade, as Kazakhs and Uzbeks make up the majority of the republic’s population.

 

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Barren land and an equally barren economy mean few humans can survive in the unforgiving environment, and those who stay have limited economic opportunities.

 

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Karakalpakstan accounts for one­-third of Uzbekistan’s land, yet it boasts a population of just 1,700,000.

 

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Half a century ago, the Aral Sea was the fourth­-largest lake in the world. Now, ninety­percent of its water has evaporated, and with it, the Karakalpaks’ traditional source of income ­­ fishing. The Karakalpak economy now subsists upon rice, melon and cotton, the latter of which is a thirsty crop largely responsible for the devastation of the sea.

 

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The lost civilization of Khorezm once called the deserts of Karakalpakstan home. This ancient society was ruled by a dynasty of Khorezmshahs, who abided by the Zoroastrian cult of fire.

 

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Today, the only remnants of this now­-mythical society are its ruins, which stand as markers of an age past and altogether forgotten.

Only 620,000 Karakalpaks roam the earth today, and these ruins serve as a reminder of the necessity of preserving a quickly fading, yet fiercely vibrant, cultural heritage.

 

Text: Michelle Robertson, Viewfind.com